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The Democratic advantage in digital, data, and analytics isn't going away easily

- May 13, 2015

Engineers and developers work at President Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago in December 2011. (Joel Kowsky/BLOOMBERG)
Ted Cruz raises $1 million in the 24 hours after he announced his candidacy, and reporting highlights the “10 staffers who hold PhDs in behavioral science or analytics” who were behind the scenes trying to “maximize the output of their potential targets.” Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s campaign promises to “be staffed with more than 1,000 data geeks, techies and digital gurus.”
In other words, the 2016 campaign is just beginning, and already “data,” “analytics,” “tech,” and “digital” seem even more prominent than in 2012. Much is said about the growing importance of these tools in modern campaigns.  But less is said about the challenges inherent in using these tools. As John Sides and Lynn Vavreck argue, these tools require significant amounts of expertise and monetary resources.
In a paper that Christopher Jasinski and I will present at the upcoming American Political Science Association annual meeting, we examined the people who worked in digital media, data, and analytics on presidential primary and general election campaigns from 2004-2012. We built an innovative data set that marries Federal Election Commission and other data (from Democracy in Action) with LinkedIn data. This enabled us to chart the careers of 626 staffers that worked in digital, data, and analytics on these campaigns. Here is what we found.
First, we found very uneven levels of professionalization. Very few staffers work in digital, data, and/or analytics on multiple campaigns. Put differently, there are few career campaign staffers in these areas. For example, out of 339 total staffers in digital, data, and analytics on the 2012 Obama campaign, for only 22 percent was their primary professional experience in politics. Many came from the commercial sector (17 percent) and technology or data analytics firms (14 percent). This shows just how new these fields are in politics, and the challenges of developing expertise not only in technology or data, but in their political uses.
Second, we found a vast gulf between Democrats and Republicans.  From 2004-2012, Democratic campaigns hired 503 staffers in digital, data, and analytics, compared with 123 Republican staffers. This is unsurprising, given the well documented differences between the two presidential campaigns in 2012 and suggestions that these differences extend to the Democratic and Republican parties more broadly.
But the gulf goes beyond that. We also looked at the flow of staffers from the technology industry and commercial sector into politics. Campaigns that can attract talent from outside industry are likely to be more innovative and able to use the best practices of other fields. Here again, the Democratic Party was far more adept at attracting this talent from outside of politics than were Republicans.
There is a similar gulf in the number of firms founded by former campaign staffers in digital, data, and analytics. Firms can institutionalize the work of campaigns, keep staffers in the political field, and produce the expertise that is increasingly necessary. From 2004 to 2012, Democratic staffers in digital, data, and analytics founded 75 firms, compared with 19 firms on the Republican side of the aisle.
To take the 2012 Obama campaign alone, 27 staffers founded 24 different ventures after that bid, including firms that have become leaders in digital media, data, and analytics. These include the data and organizing firm, 270 Strategies, the analytics firm BlueLabs, and digital firm Precision Strategies whose co-founder, Teddy Goff, is advising the digital strategy of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. One other firm of note is Civis Analytics, which was founded by former party staffer and Obama 2012 director of analytics Dan Wagner. Civis Analytics subsequently hired over one-third of the 54-person analytics team from the campaign for the new firm.
For these reasons, Republicans may not be able to catch up quickly, despite large investments of monetary resources this cycle. The Democrats have a much deeper bench of talent in digital, data, and analytics, and more staffers who have presidential campaign experience. Their firms are repositories for this talent and knowledge, and carry it up and down ballot. While digital, data, and analytics do not win elections, they do offer advantages at the margins, from efficiencies in voter contacts to millions in additional small-dollar fundraising.
To be sure, more research is needed to understand these patterns. To our knowledge, ours was the first study to look systematically at the professional biographies of campaign staffers in the areas of digital, data, and analytics.  But even these initial findings suggest the challenges to building expertise in these areas, particularly for the GOP.